Year-long celebration of Yale women ends with call for racial justice
When five distinguished Yale alumnae were asked to join a discussion on racial injustice as part of the culminating event for the 50WomenAtYale150 initiative, they were eager to participate, said Sheryl Carter Negash ’82 B.A. Each works on the front lines of this urgent challenge.
And in the hours before the Sept. 24 discussion, they were reminded just how urgent it is.
“Yale sends us out into the world thinking we can change the world,” said Negash, a consultant, diversity and inclusion expert, and Yale Medal awardee, who moderated the discussion. “And then yesterday happened.”
She was referring to the grand jury verdict a day earlier in the police killing of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black aspiring nurse, which has become a flashpoint in the national dialogue on racial injustice. None of the three officers involved were charged with the killing, sparking ongoing protests around the country.
“The fact that there was no accountability for what happened to her,” Negash said during the event, “that stopped me in my tracks. My first thought was: we need action now more than ever.”
The idea of taking action to confront the world’s wrongs — and the role of Yale women in leading these fights — was an overriding theme during the series of virtual discussions over three days.
The event, which took place Sept. 24-27, included Academy Award-winning actress Jodie Foster ’84 B.A. sharing how she overcame imposter syndrome; former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton ’73 J.D. and U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar ’82 B.A. discussing what it’s like to run for president; and a panel that included Frances Beinecke ’71 B.A., ’74 M.F.S., former Natural Resources Defense Council president, and Rhiana Gunn-Wright ’11 B.A., director of climate policy at the Roosevelt Institute and Green New Deal co-author, addressing the threat of climate change.
Other panel topics included the fate of democracy, the importance of women’s voices in the public sphere, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The discussion series marked the formal end of the year-long 50WomenAtYale150 initiative, which has showcased the depth of women’s contributions to Yale and to the world. Over the past year, the university has hosted dozens of exhibits, performances, lectures, book talks, and films honoring the achievements of Yale women — many of which have been documented on the initiative website.
The discussion of racial injustice, which kicked off the three-day event, included Rahiel Tesfamariam ’09 M.Div., an activist, theologian, and leading generational voice; Carmelyn Malalis ’96 B.A., commissioner and chair of the NYC Commission on Human Rights; Diala Shamas ’06, ’11 J.D., staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights; Rev. Kaji S. Douša ’06 M.Div., senior pastor of the Park Avenue Christian Church in New York City; and Cheryl Grills ’80, a clinical psychologist and tenured professor at Loyola Marymount University.
Over 60 minutes, the panelists addressed the systemic reforms needed to reverse centuries of injustice.
They spoke boldly.
In order to confront our racist past and change our future, Grills said, Americans need to confront an uncomfortable truth: “For generations, America has taught its children a glorious myth,” she said. “We have to emancipate ourselves from the lies we told ourselves.”
Malalis said the stakes are so high that achieving real change requires disrupting “from the inside and the outside.”
She added: “We are called to do more than we are comfortable doing, and more than we have done in the past.”
Douša called on the virtual audience to imagine a much larger “revolution of love,” adding that “Yale thinkers have to be right on the forefront of that.”
The Black Lives Matter movement has provided an important rallying cry, Tesfamariam said, but she cautioned that it should not become “a force for distraction.”
She described the work as generational and urged individuals to be led by “the issues that are breaking our hearts” rather than just hashtags and trends.
“What makes you come alive?” she asked. “There are chains that you are called to break.”
Links to video of all the panel discussions will be available on YaleNews in the weeks ahead.